Edmonia Lewis was the first African American artist to earn international fame for her artwork. She earned a living as a sculptor and portraitist and was famous for several of her works, including a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of which she sold over 100 plaster copies.
Born Mary Edmonia Lewis in 1844 in New York State, Edmonia was actually African American and Native American. Her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African descent, while her father was Haitian of African descent.
Edmonia achieved fame and earned a living from her art in a time of virulent prejudice against minorities and women. She challenged racist preconceptions with her marble sculptures of abolitionist heroes such as Colonel Shaw, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Horace Greeley.
Outspoken and bold, Edmonia worked hard for her fame. After studying art at Oberlin College in Ohio, she moved to Boston to continue her studies and open her own studio. It was always her dream to study in Rome, and she moved there in 1865 and entered a circle of fellow expatriate artist and writers. Her work became famous and popular worldwide, selling for large sums of money, and she was commissioned for many portraits by famous people, including US President Ulysses S. Grant. Her statue “The Death of Cleopatra” drew thousands of viewers in exhibition.
Edmonia’s success and fame inspired generations of artists. bell hooks called Edmonia
“an inspiration for me … as she grappled with an insensitive white environment that was not able to fully respect her artistic ambitions or her desire to remain in touch with the Chippewa world of her mother and the African American world of her father.”
Image of Edmonia Lewis courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.